AoR 96: Charles C Mann, The Americas Before Columbus, Part 2

"1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus" has been a New York Times best-selling book since publication in 2006. Charles C Mann's writings have reformed popular ideas about Native Americans and challenged cherished notions of nature. Join Charles and Tip in part 2 of a two-episode discussion about the origins of the book and some of the revelations about the peoples in North, Central, and South Americas over the last 2000 years. Look up 1491 wherever you buy books and get yourself a copy to read.


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>> Welcome to the Art of Range, a podcast focused on rangelands and the people who manage them. I'm your host, Tip Hudson, Range and Livestock Specialist with Washington State University Extension. The goal of this podcast is education and conservation through conversation. Find us online at

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This is the second in a two-part interview with Charles Mann, author of 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. If you are tuning in for the first time on this episode, be sure to subscribe to the podcast and listen to Episode 95 for the first part of our conversation. I think I might have mentioned that your book was recommended to me by Dr. Barry Perryman, who's a Range Ecologist at University of Nevada, Reno. And we had been discussing -- He's done a lot of research on cheatgrass and some other invasive annual grasses and, you know, how they were sort of like these diseases, you know, without precedent on this continent and largely without any control mechanisms. But he's also written quite a bit about what he called the pristine-management-paradigm, which may have been also a reference to William Denevan's Pristine Myth. The idea that whatever was here before Europeans came was, you know, an ecological nirvana. And that if humans would just get out of the way and let it go, that the ecosystems all over the place would go back to what we might call, you know, a climax state in ecological terms. And in most of the Western US and in most semiarid and arid ecosystems, even the idea of a climax state has now largely been discarded with the idea that, you know, whatever the plant community is now, it will follow some successional trajectory but not always the same one, just based on whatever influences happen to it in the future. But this idea that everything that the Europeans encountered was a pristine wilderness likely is not the case. Is that right?

>> Yeah. I mean, there was an idea that -- They sort of bundled up a couple of ideas. And you know, many of them with really praiseworthy origins, they were just sort of mistaken. And one is that the Native people were sort of like the perfect Sierra Club tourists. You know, they lived lightly on the land. And they didn't touch anything and --

>> Left no trace.

>> -- left no trace. Right. And so, therefore that the Americas, when Europeans arrived, were for all intents and purposes a wilderness over the vast majority of the area. And if you think about it, though, that's a really strange thing to imagine because people like to mess around. That's what people do. And why should the people of the Americas be like nobody else anywhere? And, you know, nowhere else do people do nothing around them, build nothing, construct nothing. Why should that be true here? And the answer is, it wasn't. And in fact, you were dealing with not only almost the opposite, which is people who were, on a world scale, unusually sophisticated, you know, by and large, unusually sophisticated managers of landscapes who had developed entire bodies of knowledge that were about how to shape landscapes in a way that made them more comfortable and useful for people. And, you know, an example of that was a few years ago. This is after I wrote the book. It's involved in a project I'm doing now. I visited far Northern California, where the Klamath River is. And there's the Karuk, and the Yurok, and the Hupa, and the Klamath. There's a bunch of people there. And they're telling me that their ceremonies are, well, they're religious. But they're also more like ways of codifying ecological instructions. You know, we do this for the -- You know, the ceremonies will say, essentially, we do this for the following reason. And they are ways of, you know, unlike written textbooks of, you know, of telling stories about knowledge, that it makes it easy to remember for the next generation.

>> Right. It's a cultural liturgy.

>> Yeah. Yeah, exactly. And you have, you know, the same thing was true in Europe, in the, you know, 14th century. If you go to the stained-glass windows of a place like [inaudible], they were used as visual exhibits and, you know, together with the songs to instruct people in Christian doctrine about how to live. And these ceremonies were about how to maintain the landscape. And left to its own devices, the landscape of the Northwest, of, you know, California becomes, you know, this climax vegetation, this empire of tall trees. But they didn't like that. They liked the, you know, they liked lower successional states. And so they would -- And they also didn't like the giant wildfires. And so they did this constant amount of burning to knock back the landscape, open it up, and to create the kinds of plants that they like. So they oaks because they have acorns. They liked hazel, known for hazelnuts, but the hazel was used to make these amazing baskets. This is one of the centers of basket culture, these extraordinary baskets that they make up there, just totally. There was this big fad in the 1880s for California baskets that came from there. And they're sold for their -- The poor people over there were ripped off from their baskets. And so this, you know, this -- The whole point is, all of this stuff and the salmon that was a principal foodstuff were managed in these ceremonies, which conveyed knowledge about how to create landscapes that were favorable for the oak and the hazel and the salmon and the other species that they liked. And so there weren't, I mean, they did grow some things, tobacco and so forth. But mainly, the entire landscape was a farm.

>> Mm-hmm.

>> And you could have a small amount of effort at various points of the year and have an entire food supply. And the same thing happened over here in the East Coast where, you know, when there was fires, and so forth, they managed the succession. And so, you know, the estimates are at the time of the pilgrims that one out of every four trees in the eastern forest was a chestnut, which is way more than their natural distribution. And it was because chestnuts are these incredibly fecund plants. A large chestnut, you know, the sort of the rule of thumb is a large chestnut provided enough calories to feed a family of four for a year.

>> Wow.

>> Now, nobody would want to do that. Nobody would want to eat chestnuts 24/7. But it gives, you know. And you just did a little bit of burning, and there you had your food. And so then you, you know, if the deer didn't show up or something, you always had what you needed. And that was their view of this, that you have these staples that are sort of growing quietly in the background. And then you go after the treats.

>> Right. And they're able to maintain that polyculture through a much less intensive kind of management than --

>> Right.

>> -- tilling and planting and --

>> Right

>> -- weeding.

>> Exactly. Right.

>> Yeah.

>> So they kind of looked at Europeans tilling and planting and weeding, thinking like, why are you doing that?

>> Right. It expends more energy than you gain back from it.

>> Right. It's insanely inefficient. Why is your technology so primitive? Right? And so that was, you know, that was, again, a completely different view on how to manage the landscape. And here, you know, now let me -- That's all fact as far as I know. Now let me get into opinion. Where I'm speaking to you from Massachusetts, and we have a problem that's coming up, which is that we've got a number of exotic pests and diseases, ash blight, emerald ash bores wiping out the ashes. Got, you know, the [inaudible] is going after I think it's hickory. We have these imported diseases. And so we are having a lot of dead trees that are coming up and kind of like California with oak blight and the other diseases. So we're going to have some real serious fire problems. And yet, you know, there's no incentive for all this wood in, you know, private and state hands to log this stuff and replant it. But if you could replant it with chestnuts and create a market for that, you might have an -- you know, and watched how they did that because that's exactly what Native people did, you might be able to come up with a way of reforesting these in such a way that wouldn't be just a complete drain on the public treasury. And I like chestnuts, so they'd be nice to have too.

>> Sure.

>> And diversify agriculture. In a sense, chestnuts are incredibly rich nutritionally, and so you could use them for animal feed just as well as you can use, you know, all the other things that we grow for animal feed. It's kind of crazy that in California, you know, fallow, they're taking alfalfa and shipping it over to the Middle West when, you know, the Middle West could grow chestnuts and get the same, you know, nutritional equivalent. But all of this is just, again, me, editorializing. And it's sort of talking about why I think it's worthwhile learning about this because it opens up possibilities for us.

>> Mm-hmm. And would you say that all of the different Indian groups across North America were having a pretty large influence on the national environment on a large scale?

>> I would say -- Well, all this is hard because, for all I know, there's so many groups somewhere that I just don't know about. But every case that I'm aware of.

>> Most.

>> Yeah, most or every case that I'm aware of, something like that.

>> I think in the article, Nature Rebounds, Bill Denevan says -- he makes the point, I guess, refuting the idea that all these groups were primarily hunter-gatherers. That even if they were only hunter-gatherers, which is maybe a demeaning opinion that we hold of them, that still would've pretty quickly exterminated all the game in a really wide swath. You know, if all they're doing is killing deer and buffalo, you're going to run out of deer and buffalo pretty quick. And then you got to go somewhere else. But if there's enough people occupying the somewhere else, that's not really a possibility.

>> Exactly. And so people very rapidly learn that -- Because people are observant, right? And so we know that. And this has been, you know, this, again, this is where Indigenal [phonetic] knowledge, it's got this horrible acronym, TEK, T-E-K, Traditional Ecological Knowledge like, you know, high TEK, you know?

>> Right.

>> Right. I'm making air quotes with all this. But anyway, one of the things that they learned is that buffalo, bison, really like the first growth that springs up after a prairie fire. And if you do that, then they preferentially seek it out. And there's lots of studies showing this is the case. I mean, it was just learned by observation. And then, you know, in the 21st century, people are burning areas and watching where the buffalo go, and sure enough. But the point is that by strategically burning, you can guide where buffalo herds go. And you can do this and this. The buffalo themselves have all kinds of effects on the -- And so you can -- One of the things that you want to do, if you're interested in buffalo, is to prevent succession, you know, to knock back stages. So you do this burning prairie grasses where their very deep roots survive the burning. Seedlings of trees, you know, have much shallower roots because they're just young, and they die. And so you can kill off the trees, stimulate growth that brings in buffalo. You know, it's a magic thing that you can do. And so estimates are that the, you know, when the Europeans saw the Great Plains, they were, you know, 30%, 40%, some number like that, bigger than they would quote-unquote, naturally have been because of Native burning.

>> Hmm. So what was the -- In North America, what was the timeline of the, you know, demise, the decimation of these groups through disease? We've talked around some of those dates. I'm just wanting to kind of piece together the macro scale timeline of when disease came through, and then you had this corresponding flush in both flora and fauna that people like Charles [Inaudible] are responding to.

>> Yeah, exactly. So, yes. What would -- So what -- It happened differently in different places, but there's a two, that we know of really, huge epidemics. And one was in the -- began in the 1520s in Central Mexico. And a guy named Dobbins kind of tracked it. And it went south, jumped across, and went into Peru and caused just havoc there. And that was smallpox. And that led directly to, in both cases, to the Spanish conquest. There was another giant epidemic that began in this -- that began in the 18th century and came from Mexico City and went up through the middle of North America and into Canada. And so that was the two sort of, that we know of, really big events. Then there are lots and lots of smaller epidemics. And beginning in the 16, you know, 17 in New England, and then the, you know, spreading along the Atlantic Coast. Meanwhile, along California, in the, I think it was in the 18th century, you had these Jesuits who would, you know, force Native peoples to live in big clusters around the missions. And those became hotbeds of disease. And so that was in the early 18th century in California. So, you know, you get this patchwork effect where bad things happened in different places. But as Denevan spoke, what happened was that for the first time when people stopped, man died, they stopped managing the landscape. And for the first time, there was the creation of actual wilderness. And that, you know, to an extent, what the Europeans saw when they were pushing into these places that had recently been emptied by disease was a wilderness, but one that they themselves had created in the most awful way.

>> Mm-hmm. And I guess our -- the description of wilderness mostly meant a pretty rapid trend toward forestation or afforestation in a lot of locations.

>> Yeah. And so there was, you know, fairly rapid afforestation. But it was. Maybe we shouldn't say wilderness. What they thought was wilderness was actually just feral. And so --

>> Right.

>> Right. And so, you know, some pretty strange things happened. And what it led to, by the end of the 19th century, was some just cataclysmic forest fires of the kind that we're seeing now. And unfortunately, the nascent, you know, just-born US Forest Service and the just-born Science of Forestry took exactly the wrong lessons from this, which was that, you know, we need to maximize timber. And the way to do that is to stamp out fire. And so they, as we are now learning, they inadvertently created the conditions, you know, to have really --

>> Catastrophic fires.

>> -- catastrophic fires. Yeah.

>> Uh-huh. Huh. Yeah. A lot of this podcast has mostly been focused on semiarid rangelands. But there's a lot of places around the world that would be considered rangelands that look different than, you know, say, the shrub step in much of the West. I actually grew up in Arkansas and had never heard the term rangeland. But just by, you know, as an example here, the area that was behind our house on a small ranch property, you know, we bush hogged it periodically because if you didn't, it would take about, it felt like, three weeks before the forest just takes over.

>> Yes.

>> You know, you have this very rapid proliferation of various kinds of woody plants. And if those aren't held in check by mowing, burning, grazing by something that will eat them, something, it extremely rapidly explodes in a diversity of plants. And would look within just a few years like it had never been managed in any way at all or manipulated by people.

>> Right. Exactly. And that's -- in that -- and you know, imagine that happening all over the Americas.

>> Right.

>> And in addition that wild growth -- I'm not as familiar with Arkansas as I am here. But my God, is it hard to walk through? It's full of bugs. It's just really a drag to be around. And so, you know, so do you -- just for comfort's sake, you want to get rid of it.

>> I think you mentioned in the book as well that malaria came from Europeans.

>> Yes.

>> I was not aware of that.

>> Okay. Here's like Malaria 101. There's dozens and dozens of species of malaria. And malaria is a single-celled parasite that, you know, gets into our bloodstream, hides in red blood cells, multiplies like crazy, bursts out in a coordinated thing -- coordinated assault where our body is flooded with billions or trillions of these parasites. And there's so many of them that mosquitoes that bite us during that time can pick up some of the parasites. Even if they just take a drop of our blood, there'll be some of the parasites in it. And then they can go through another stage of lifecycle. And they can go and give it to somebody else. The type of mosquito that transmits malaria is called the anopheles mosquito. That's a genus. And so there's many, many species of it. There's three or four species in the Americas that are capable of transmitting malaria. There's four species of malaria that -- types of malaria that affect people. Vivax was the one that came into Europe. And it's more cold, tolerant than the other -- than the other types. Let's see. The parasite is called [inaudible]. And the bad kind, the kind that we hear about in Africa, is called falciparum. And so both of them invaded the Americas, probably carried across by sailors. And what can happen is in both vivax and falciparum, the parasite can, you know, will come out and, you know, make you feel awful. And then it will retreat and hide out in the spleen for months or even years until it does this attack again. So it's just a terrible, sneaky disease that's capable of giving you a long respite that makes you think that you're not sick. And so one of -- So it came over in the bodies of Europeans and very quickly infested areas pretty much just south of New York -- of New York City down to Florida. And it was so common that when people from colder climates like England, or Northern England, say, where it was rare, would come to Virginia. They would have to go through a process known as seasoning, which meant that they would get sick for months with malaria. Now, the falciparum, which comes from Africa, was brought over by African slaves and can't do as well over here but infected South America, Central America, and the Caribbean and made life miserable for people over there. And so they were both terrible, terrible diseases. And one of the reasons for slavery was that if you brought over Europeans, they would get to work here. They would get sick from malaria. And they have to go through the seasoning process. Whereas most Africans, especially people in West Africa, where slaves -- in Central Africa, where slaves typically came from have one or another of a genetic mutation that makes malaria less bad for them. They were like, quote-unquote, genetically superior in this way. And this made them more desirable laborers than a European that you'd bring over. He'd get sick for six months and then might die.

>> Right.

>> So malaria was one of the reasons for the slave trade.

>> Yeah. That's fascinating. My initial point in the question was that disease has played a way more significant role in the rise and fall of nations and people groups than I think we give it credit for. And you mentioned in the book that malaria played a pretty large in, you know, in what we have called the Revolutionary War.

>> Yeah.

>> And that the British troops, you know, in Virginia and parts of the East Coast were just really struggling under malaria.

>> Yeah. Yeah. If you have vivax, eventually, you know, if you have a seasoning process, as I talked about, you build up an acquired immunity to it. You can still get sick, but you get less sick. Whereas if the first time you get it -- And so the British troops would come typically from Northern England, where it was uncommon. And they would be -- There's a whole southern strategy that the idea was that the -- the British strategy was to take their troops. And they thought that the planters in, you know, the Carolinas, and Georgia, and so forth, were basically loyal. And so they planned to split the colonies, this is during the Revolutionary War, by creating, you know, this -- taking half of the colonies and make, you know, restoring them into the fold of Britain. And what happened is they took all their guys over there. And they all got sick. And Cornwallis, who was the general, eventually fled to the tidewater in Virginia because his army was collapsing around him. Unfortunately, he fled to the most malarial area in the entire original 13 colonies.

>> Wow.

>> And so he had to surrender. He had nobody left to fight with.

>> That's wild. I'm curious. I'm looking for a way to kind of wrap up our conversation. But one of the things I did want to ask you about, you have -- you've been a science writer and have probably written about some of these topics, you know, from a little bit -- from a -- from somebody who was not trained inside of the world of, say, rangeland ecology and natural resource management. What, maybe what perceptions and ideas about natural resource management have you thought through or encountered or, you know, worked on in researching and writing this book and potentially others?

>> In rangeland ecology and forestry and all these sort of management disciplines, you know, there's traditions of research. And you know, many of which come from the Europeans. You know, forestry originally was developed in Germany and also by English people who are trying to maintain things in India. And they have been applied in the name of certain goals like, you know, for forestry maximize board timber.

>> Board foot production. Yeah.

>> Yeah. Board foot production for, you know, equivalent for, you know, maximize. And they're extremely effective at this. I don't want to in any way do this.

>> Sure.

>> The problem is that conditions are changing now, and we are also asking for managers to think about different goals as well. It's one thing to ask a forester to maximize board foot production. But if that inadvertently ends up maximizing wildfires, you know, you have to start saying, wait a minute here. We need to start having more -- a different and more complicated set of goals because we certainly want timber.

>> Right.

>> But we also want to, you know, stop these wildfires. And I think this has happened throughout, you know, broadly speaking, agriculture, where the changing situations that we are in are forcing people to reconsider both what their goals are and the means of accomplishing them. You know, if the Colorado River runs out of water, the kind of agriculture that we've been thinking about in the Central Valley, which has been enormously productive, has been a tremendous boon to, you know, the entire world, but it's going to have to be rethought. And it's not a slam on anybody to say that the methods of the past aren't going to work any -- aren't going to work anymore. But it is a problem if people are imprisoned by their own training and their own traditions and find it hard to respond to these new circumstances and these new demands. I don't know if that at all sense -- makes sense to you?

>> It does, yeah. The where -- Yeah, it's hard. You don't know what you don't know. It's hard to think outside of your own --

>> Yeah.

>> -- boxes. And by their nature, we're usually unaware of the bounds of the box. And it's hard to think outside of it.

>> Right.

>> It's sort of like this idea of the, you know, the Central American Indians using, you know, what I would see as a more innovative form of polyculture.

>> Yeah.

>> Those are interesting ideas. And we just don't -- we don't -- we can't get there. It's hard to imagine what's outside of the room that we're in.

>> Right. And you know, and partly this is because, you know, funding in research universities has, you know, goes down a certain path, you know, for agriculture. You know, there's statistics. I forget what it is. It's something like 90% of the research goes into a small number of cereals and potatoes and, you know, a couple of other crops. And what that means is that research into new systems is very difficult. And you know, here we are in a place like Sonora, which is running out of water and has been growing wheat there. That's where Borlaug developed his wheat. You know, until last year, I believe, there is no researchers at the University of Sonora who are able to investigate silvopastoral systems where you are combining cattle in trees and using the fodder from the trees to promote the cattle. And this is a traditional system that's been long used in West Africa. And has been done by some Indigenous groups, you know, sort of on their own and is at least a possible, you know, response to climate change. You know, but it doesn't fit in any holes. There's too many environmentalists who see all cattle as bad, right? There's too many farmers who say, wait a minute, I don't want to deal with growing trees. I don't know how to do that. And there's too many researchers who say, I can't research this because I can't get funded for it. And so you have everybody in their own silos. And then, you know, and to be fair on the social scientist side, there are too many researchers who don't understand that this sort of system that they're studying could be applied in different ways, in different places, and aren't reaching across boundaries themselves.

>> Yeah, I think that's a really important point. In fact, the Society for Range Management has their annual meeting coming up in February in Boise, Idaho. And one of the main themes is working across borders, geographic borders, disciplinary borders, you know, personality differences. But I think you were getting at, you know, one of these big -- one of these big ideas, we -- I think we -- one of the boxes that we get stuck in is that there's, we see this dichotomy between agriculture and wildlands, you know, intensive land use versus extensive land use. And we see these things as being mutually exclusive. At least we have --

>> Yes.

>> -- because our ideas about agriculture have primarily been what we talked about earlier, a fenced, tilled monoculture that is intensively managed and has a lot of inputs and likely some blending of the two in a way where it might be difficult to identify an area as being either agriculture or wildland is a useful concept. And I've said before on here, this is one of the things that intrigues me about rangelands-based livestock production in that because it relies -- because it's only profitable if you do not have a large number of inputs, the way to be profitable is to, you know, maximize or optimize the diversity and the productivity of a naturally occurring plant community. But that's largely been restricted to what I'm calling rangelands-based livestock production. But it seems that maybe some of those barriers are, you know, being not removed, but poked through in a way that I hope we're beginning to think about food production in a way that's perhaps, you know, more diverse than that.

>> Yeah. And it's, you know, the kind of industrial monoculture that we have has been enormously successful. You know, and it's the reason that the percentage of people who are hungry in the world has declined so dramatically since the 1970s. And this is a huge accomplishment. And one should not in any way dismiss or minimize it. But at the same time, in the world that we live in that is based on that success, agriculture is facing a new set of demands and a new set of circumstances and ideas. We should be careful not to throw away any good ideas.

>> Mm-hmm. If you're willing, I wanted to give you just a minute to talk about some of your other books. One of the ones that I'm thinking of is Noah's Choice. I haven't read it yet, but this was an older book, I think published in '95, about the future of endangered species. And if we -- I happen to be a book lover. And so I would like to stimulate people to read more books because I think it does more to generate ideas and help us be creative than reading the news. What was Noah's Choice about?

>> Well, it's about biodiversity and the idea of the biodiversity crisis. And so, to some extent, what it argued was that the biodiversity crisis is both real and overblown. And that the estimates of, you know, how many species are lost and so forth that were so prevalent by the time the book was written in the 1990s, I like to imagine that we've changed a little bit since then, are generated by this thing called the Species Area Curve that is kind of suspect. And we argued why it was these estimates are suspect. And we said, in fact, the losses and extinctions are concentrated in certain types of places, in certain types of areas. And but however, the funding for biodiversity is, which is also concentrated in certain areas, in no way matches or coincides of the actual threats. And that's because, in the United States, we were primarily focused on North America, it's driven by lawsuits. You know, take, you know --

>> Still is.

>> -- a huge amount of money was, for example, spent on the spotted owl. And, you know, which is a subspecies. It's extremely close genetically to the owls, you know, further south. And it was used as a kind of cover for old-growth forests to try and protect old-growth forests. But if you're worried about biodiversity, that money should probably be spent on trying to learn how to manage those forests instead of letting them burn up, which is what we're doing now.

>> Right.

>> And we should also focus on the fact that the great majority of species under immediate threat live on islands or island-like areas and are also lower trophic levels, so there's a tremendous mismatch there. And so we argued that, you know, these are real. We also argued that the reasons for preserving most species aren't practical in the sense that they're always sort of saying, well, if you kill this species off, you know, what if it has a cure for cancer? That kind of thing.

>> Mm-hmm.

>> And most species don't. And you know, it's not like we want to protect whales because if we didn't, we think that they'll have a cure of cancer. Or if whales disappear, the seas will fill with krill. We want to protect whales because they're beautiful.

>> Right.

>> They're wonderful.

>> They're intrinsically valuable. Yeah.

>> Right. And few will get very sort of embarrassed about talking about these kinds of things. And so that was what our attempt was to say is that if we actually talked honestly about these, we might do a better job. And that would include the fact that some species are going to go extinct. And it's very difficult to imagine how that could not happen. And we should think about which ones we want to preserve because it's, right now, pretending to preserve them all is going to lead to much greater losses than admitting that we don't -- we have a budget.

>> No, that's really interesting. I look forward to reading that. I think that you pointed out a pretty interesting, I'm not sure if paradox is the right word, but we say we want diversity. And what we usually mean by that is botanical diversity. But you tend to have much, much higher biodiversity of all kinds, not just plant diversity, in these mid-seral stages.

>> Yes.

>> But then our response to problems with natural resource management is to apply management that tries to push everything as fast as possible to a later seral stage. Which is much less diverse, usually in flora and fauna.

>> Yes.

>> One of the examples, I think it's a good one, is western red cedar forest in British Columbia. When I was at the University of Idaho in the late '90s, we had a symposium with some research about fire and salmon populations and forests. And somebody was giving the example of a, you know, western red cedar forest that had not burned in 6- or 700 years. And so you have essentially a monoculture of western red cedar with almost nothing in the understory. And the interesting point from this talk was that the streams that were running through that area were also largely sterile because there was no -- there were no allogenous sources of organic matter to feed the micro invertebrates that would then feed the fish. So you had -- you had this biological desert of a sorts, which is even probably a bad, that's a misnomer because often deserts are pretty diverse.

>> Right.

>> Anyway, you had a situation where there was very, very little diversity as a result of, you know, letting succession move all the way to what truly was a climax plant community. And that really isn't what we want in most places, although it's useful to have that somewhere.

>> Sure. Yes, exactly. And very typically, what people do is maintain patch ecosystems where, you know, you have multiple successional states in different parts of the landscape. And you know, done right, you end up with much more diversity. And this is one of the things actually very similarly that the people in the Klamath are complaining about is that these Douglas fir monocultures that replaced the, you know, oak heavy forests that are there are much less good for salmon than what they have now, which are, you know, largely put in place by the Forest Service because Douglas fir is, you know, a fabulous tree in terms of board foot. And it's a beautiful tree.

>> Sure.

>> It's a wonderful tree, but they say there's too much of it, you know. And so if you want salmon, you know, the Forest Service needs to, and the land managers for the state, need to start actually saying, we are going to accept some restrictions on the amount of board feet that we're going to get per hectare.

>> Mm-hmm. Yeah. Just one more comment. Then I want to ask you about your other book, the more recent one, The Wizard and the Prophet. You know, regarding the boxes that we get stuck in, you know, we in the Western world, I would say, have instrumentalized all of what's out there. You know, we tend to see, our real view sees all of natural resources, and even the term resources gives it away, we see it as stuff that we're to impose our will upon to make it serve our purposes as opposed to something that has a value in and of itself. And you know, because I live in that, I'm not even -- I would have to take some time to try to articulate, you know, what the other worldview would have been of the people that lived here. I mean, to some extent, they also were doing the same thing, imposing their will on it. But with a lot fewer -- different kinds of tools than we have been able to use.

>> Yeah, I, you know, I think it's, you know, what do you mean by resource in some sense? You know, they were attempting to create landscapes that would both sustain them and that would be a pleasure to live in. And I mean, that's a gross generalization. But I think it's, you know, basically true. And that's different from saying I want to create something that has maximum productivity.

>> Mm-hmm.

>> And, you know, also, they were not hooked up to global markets in the way that we are. And that's been a consistent problem for us that we're not good at, which is, you know, something like acai becomes popular. And acai is this palm -- is fruit from this palm. It's delicious. It's eaten in Brazil. It becomes a superfood. It's available in all the markets here. And people in Brazil have been, you know, perfectly happy to just gather it. Now you start saying, whoa, I want to supply all of Western Europe. So you end up clearing the land, and we're doing an acai monoculture.

>> Right.

>> And all of it is sensible, each individual step. But you end up with something that's really ecologically problematic and difficult to sustain in the Brazilian context because of this enormous demand from Europe or California, wherever you're talking about. And this is just a problem that we have is maintaining a kind of balance like this.

>> Mm-hmm. Your more recent book, The Wizard and the Prophet, what is that about?

>> Well, it's, as I said, I'm a journalist. And I've been, you know, writing on environmental and, you know, scientific issues for 30 or 40 years. And, you know, would talk to researchers or activists or politicians or who have you about things like, you know, how we're going to feed everybody. How are we going to get fresh water to everybody? How are we going to get energy to everybody? How are we going to deal with climate change? I realized that their answers fell into, you know, typically, fell into two sort of broad types of response. They're like at different ends of a spectrum. People would be on one end or -- towards one end or towards the other. And I started calling them, at least mentally, wizards and prophets. Actually, I initially called them druids and engineers, but nobody knows what a druid is. So now I call them wizards and prophets. And a wizard, I thought it was a techno. And these people typically believe that science and technology properly applied will let us produce our way out of our environmental dilemmas. And the model for that is, you know, it's constantly talked about. It's a guy, I've mentioned him even in this -- in this conversation we're having, is Norman Borlaug.

>> Right.

>> And he, for those of you who don't know, he's a guy I think everybody should know about. And he is the main figure in what's been called the Green Revolution, which is the combination of, you know, high-yielding seeds, high -- you know, high-intensity fertilizer and irrigation. He put them all together in the '60s, and '70s, and '80s, and it doubled, tripled, even quadrupled grain yields in much of the world. And it's had a huge impact in reducing the amount of hunger in the world. And the prophets typically believe something quite different, which is that the world is governed by ecological laws. And these laws have limits. And we transgress these limits to our peril. The limits have all different names, you know, carrying capacity, planetary boundaries, ecological limits. You know, you've heard this idea. And this is the sort of founding idea of the environmental movement. You know that if we go past what nature allows, we're in trouble. And that's what we're constantly doing. And the person who put that together is not well known. But his name is William Vogt. And he's the sort of first guy to put all this idea together. And he says, you know, if you like the reigning ideology of the environmental movement or something like that. And the environmental movement is the only successful ideology that emerged out of the 20th century. And so you, you know, an enormously important figure. But also, if you think about it, these two answers, you know, the wizards answer to produce more, and the prophets answer to stay within limits, they're kind of the opposite of each other. And that struck me as there's this tension in there. And you see it rippling through environmental disputes for the last 60 years. And that's what I wanted to -- that's what I wrote about, was this tension between wizards and prophets. And it's also a sort of a vest pocket biography of Vogt and Borlaug.

>> Great. I actually have ordered those. And I'm looking forward to reading that as well. I think those are some pretty important and similar ideas to what we've been talking about. And I think even -- I went to the school at the University of Idaho, which sits in the middle of the Palouse

>> Mm-hmm. Beautiful.

>> And it's a good example of this tension because we were wildly successful in producing a lot of wheat. But we also, in that part of the country, in fact, in soils textbooks, it's often mentioned as the example of an environment and a farming system that produced the highest rates of soil erosion in the world --

>> Yeah.

>> -- which, obviously, that can't happen for very long before you've run out of dirt. And now you can't produce wheat anymore. And thankfully, we've made some progress on that. But it does highlight the extreme of the wizard's way.

>> Right. And that's a great -- You know, and so there's this tension because the wizards quite properly say, wait a minute, we need to feed everybody, you know?

>> Sure.

>> And we need to make people as well off as possible. And to which the prophets say, yeah, but if you keep doing this, we're all going to be worse off.

>> Well, I think we'll -- I think we'll close it off there. I think that's a good conclusion. And I sincerely hope that listeners will read these books. And that will cause them to think about how we can synthesize these ideas into ways that feed people and don't destroy our ecosystems. Charles, I really, really appreciate your time. And I have thoroughly enjoyed your books. It's one thing to put information together. But it's another thing to make it readable. And you have done that really well.

>> Well, thank you. That was the goal. And I hope very much that people will think about these things because they're all these issues that are going to be ever more important in the decades to come.

>> I agree with you. Thanks again.

>> My pleasure.

>> Thank you for listening to the Art of Range podcast. You can subscribe to and review the show through iTunes or your favorite podcasting app so you never miss an episode. Just search for Art of Range. If you have questions or comments for us to address in a future episode, send an email to For articles and links to resources mentioned in the podcast, please see the show notes at Listener feedback is important to the success of our mission, empowering rangeland managers. Please take a moment to fill out a brief survey at This podcast is produced by CAHNRS Communications in the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University. The project is supported by the University of Arizona and funded by the Western Center for Risk Management Education through the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

>> The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed by guests of this podcast are their own and does not imply Washington State University's endorsement.

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Mentioned Resources

You can follow Charles C Mann on his Twitter page,

1491 is available from the usual booksellers. The link here to 1491 is, a good website for finding new or slightly used books at better prices than full retail.

Also mentioned in this episode are Charles's books 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created and Noah's Choice: The Future of Endangered Species. In episode 96 we discuss Mann's most recent book, The Wizard and the Prophet, contrasting the philosophical approaches to agriculture and natural resources conservation represented by Norman Borlaug and William Vogt.

Charles recommended Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775, by Elizabeth A Fenn. And Indigenous Continent: the Epic Contest for North America, by Pekka Hämäläinen

Also mentioned were Ecological Imperialism: the Biological Expansion of Europe and The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492, both by Alfred Crosby.

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